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Books - The History and Natural History of Ephedra as SOMA
Written by S. Mahdihassan   


Only of the morning drink Rigveda speaks of Soma drink as pure juice. It was bitter and had to be served with additives to make it palatable. Soma was consumed thrice daily. It was only in the morning that it was consumed neat. The subsequent two drinks were always flavoured. This clearly means that the original juice was bitter, as also indicated in Rigveda. Moreover, verse 3.48.3. speaks of it as, "pungent Soma," which again can be something bitter or at least unpleasant to taste. If Soma is ephedra its juice would be bitter due to ephedrine. The simplest way to consume such a drink is to dilute it and then sip it, thereby reducing the quantity taken into the mouth at any one time. The Chinese drink tea in this manner. An Englishman however takes a stronger decoction. He then makes it palatable by adding milk and sugar. The Aryans, also drank Soma either diluted, as in the morning, or made palatable with additives, like milk, curds and honey for being consumed at noon and at evening. The Tibetans take tea with several ingredients including Yak butter. The Aryans prepared their Soma almost like the Tibetans do their tea. One established feature about Soma is its consumption thrice a day. There is no case of an intoxicant or a hallucinogen being consumed likewise. This excludes Soma from being either of them. That would be its negative aspect. On the positive side, it has to be explained why it was consumed thrice, neither oftener nor less. Now the British Pharmacopeia informs us that the effect of ephedrine lasts for four hours. Then taking ephedrine thrice a day meant keeping the system supplied with it throughout the day. The morning drink served as an energizer, providing the consumer with strength as he started his work for the day. At noon, or after over four hours, he again needed a strengthening dose. At evening, following another four hours, he consumed the least quantity of ephedrine which sufficed to produce enough euphoria to overcome the exhaustion of the day. It can be seen that the midday drink would be the best, in between two periods of activity. This drink was dedicated to Indra. The morning drink, the simplest, was dedicated to Vayu and RV. 10.85.57 says "Vayu is Soma's guardian god." The evening drink, also made palatable,contained the least amount of ephedrine and was dedicated to Maruts, the storm gods._. Ephedrine is anti-somnolent so that the weakest drink was the evening drink. Yet there had to be enough of ephedrine content to produce euphoria and make the consumer overcome exhaustion and the worries of the day. The British Pharmacopeia recommends 16 mg. as the highest dose of ephedrine but there are tablets for asthma with 50 mg. each. On this basis it can be guessed that the morning drink contained 50 mg ephedrine, the noon perhaps the same, but the evening only 20. It is not worthwhile indulging further into hypothetical calculations to express how much of the crude drug was used at each pressing: We now come to the actual verses referring to these three forms of Soma drink.
Diluted with water
9.24.1. When blent in waters they are rinsed. 9.74.9 Soma juice blended with streams (water) flows through the long- wool of the sheep. 9.86.19 Far-seeing Soma  mixed with the stream he caused the beakers to resound
10.85.5 "Vayu is Soma's guardina god." What Vayu drinks is unmixed Soma juice. 7.91.4. Vayu, 0 ye pure drinkers drink with us pure Soma. 7.92.1, Vayu drinker of the pure (juice) be near us. 1.2.1. Vayu come, for thee these Soma drops have been prepared. 5.51.5 Vayu come higher to the feast drink of the Soma juice effused.
Mixed with milk
1.23.1. Strong are the Soma, these juices have been mixed with milk. 9.11.5 Purify Soma and pour the sweet milk in the meath. 9.11.2 Together with thy pleasant juice the Atharvans have comingled milk. 9.66.6, "Streams of the milk run forth to thee" Soma. Milk was no problem for the Aryan pastoral people. 8.2.10: "Indra, are thy Soma draughts pressed out by us, the strong, the pure, they crave admixture of the milk." 8.2.11, Indra pour in milk, prepare the cake, and mix the Soma drought.
9.2.4 The mighty. waters, the floods accompany thee Mighty ones, when thou wilt clothe thee with milk. 9.66.13 "Indu, the running waters flow to us, when thou wilt robe thyself in milk." Kapadia refers to the above two verses and interpreting them states that "after, mixture with water milk was added to the juice." It means, water diluted the juice first and reduced its bitterness, then came milk to flavour it. We also drink tea diluted enough for it not to taste bitter and further add milk and sugar. There are many verses mentioning Soma as mixed with milk.
Mixed with milk and curds:
Kapadia (p.20) refers to verses in which "mixture with milk and curds is found even prior to filtration." 9.63.15 "Over the cleansing sieve have flowed the Somas blent with curdled milk." His other reference as indicated could not be tracted in Griffith's translation. Now this treatment of crushed stalks with curd means the mass is acidified with lactic acid. Ephedrine, as base, dissolves in 20 parts of water, but as, Ephedrine lactate, would dissolve in about 5 parts, solubility of the original active principle would be highly increased. 8.2.9 "Pure art thou set in many a place blended in the midst with milk and curd." 9.11.6 "Blend the libation with the curds." 1.137.2 "Soma droppings blent with curd, juice expressed and blent with curd." 5.51.7 "For Indra and for Vayu pressed are Soma juices blent with curd." 7.32.4 "These Soma juices, mixed with curd, have been expressed for Indra." There are many references to Soma mixed with curd. When the original juice is bitter this taste is better masked by a slightly acidic sweet additive.
Honey as additive:
9.86.43 They balm him thoroughly ... with meath (honey). 8.10.4 By their godhead drink the sweets of Soma juice, 1.142.3. "He wondrous, sanctifying, sprinkles the sacrifice with meath. Thrice Narasansa (Agni) from the heavens, a god mid gods adorable." Oldenberg interprets it to the effect that honey was added to the juice thrice daily thus at every drink. Certainly not in the morning.
Butter as additive:
Kapadia (p.42) finds regular terms for juice "being mixed with ghee, called Ghritashri, Ghritasnu, and Ghritascyut." For pastoral people butter or ghee, as milk product, was easily available. 10.29.6. Here for thy choice are Somas mixed with butter, may be sweet meath be pleasant for thy, drinking. 10.69.2. Butter is that which makes Vadhryasavds fire grow strong. Balmed with streams of butter shines forth like the sun.
9.57.32. Sarasvati draws forth for him water, and butter, milk and meath.
Barley as additive
It is to be assumed that parched barley was used which would impart the taste we know while eating porridge. It cannot be as raw grains which were mixed with swollen stalks of Soma to prevent these being over pulverized.
8.81.4 (For Indra) the Soma juice with barley mixed.
3.42.7 The juice which we have pressed mingled with barley and with milk. 4.24.7 He who this day for Indra presses Soma, prepares the brow and fries the grains of barley.
5.27.5 The gift of Ashvamedha, the thrice mingled draughts of Soma juice. Griffith explains "the thrice mingled, as mixed with milk, curds and parched grains." Altogether the juice could be easily made palatable without troubling to add barley, with milk and curds, but the Tibetan tea does contain barley with milk, sugar or honey and Yak butter, thickened like custard.
Oil as additive
If butter or ghee was used to blend Soma, oil easily suggests itself as an equivalent. Neither Kapadia nor Wasson refer to oil as additive. 9.86.37. As sovran lord 0 Indu may they pour forth for thee milk and oil rich in sweets. 10.65.2 "And Soma blent with oil, putting his greatness forth." Oil as additive has not been noticed before.
The juice as boiled
Like our tea Soma as container of ephedrine could have also been boiled. But Kapadia (p.23) informs us that "a reference to the cooking of Soma is not possible to be found in Rigveda." Nevertheless RV.9.46.4 reads, "Defthanded man, seize the brilliant juices blent with meal and cook with milk the gladdening draught." This like our tea Soma would be a hot drink.
Beer as additive:
Atharvaveda 4.35.6 "Full lakes of butter with their banks of honey flowing with wine (Sura) and milk and curds and water." Griffith translates Sura as wine. It
is fermented barley or beer proper. Its presence here
is decidedly to impart flavour.
Atharvaveda 6.69.1 Mise be the sweetness that is found is nectar and in flowing wine (Sura).
Rigveda 1.187.9 "Soma we enjoy from thee is milky food or barley brew, Vatapi, grow thou fat thereby."
Griffith explains Vatapi as the formenting Soma. The word Vatapati follows 'Barley-brew, as a synonym,, and does not follow Soma, so that Vatapati refer to fermented barley or barley brew which is Sura.
Items employed is preparing the juice
The Aryans being pastoral people were nomads. Fire was used when indispensable. Thus boiling of ephedra, just as we do with tea, could not have been popular.Ephedrd belongs to the pine family and like pine leaves its stalks are hard. They can however be chewed. This again could not have become popular for the stalks are not as soft as the coca leaf. But when the plant was first discovered it must have been chewed. Rigveda however does speak of pressed and un-pressed stalks. RV.6.41.4 says "Soma when pressed excells the un-pressed Soma better, for one who knows, to give him pleasure." We have now to assume that the unpressed stalk was also exploited by being chewed. Once it was found that ephedra, upon chewing, did produce a quantity of the active principle as energizer, it later became customary to crush the stalks to deliver a sufficient amount of juice. We have to discuss the items used in preparing the juice.
1. Ox-hide
Kapadia (p.8) states, it "has two functions, the washed or cleared stalks are placed on it." Secondly "the extracted juice flows on it." This refers only to juice sprinkled while crushing on stones. The skin "also serves as the seat for the crushing stones.
RV.1.29.9: "Take up in beakers what remains (of the pressed out juice) the Soma on the filter pour. And on ox-hide set the dregs." 9.65.25: "Over the ox-hide flows the lovely one of tawny hue." 9.69.3: "He flows about the sheep skin," the filter 9.66.29" "the Soma, through the pressing stones is sporting (flowing on the ox-hide." 9.12.3. "In the stream's wave wise Soma rests upon a wild cow's hide. 9.79.4. "The press stones chew and crunch thee on the ox-hide."
2. Press Stones
The entire hymn, X. 96. is dedicated to Press Stones, 1Q.76.2.
"The pressing stone (upper) is grasped like a hand-guided steed."10.76.7. "The stones press out the Soma drain forth the sape thereof, to fill the beakers they exhaust the udder's store." 9.102.11: "effused by menas of pressing stones, upon the oxhide visible (is Soma juice). 6.44.10: "Soma juice shed by mighty press stones." The adjective, mighty, suggests that more than one twig was crushed. Only when several pieces of stalk were crushed in mass that the press stone had to be "mighty", to crush them all. Naturally no mushroom would require such force. 10.95.10: "strong is your stalk. "This did require the stones to function like hammer and anvil.
Instead of crushing the stalks on a flat stone and allowing the juice to flow on the hide, mortar was also used to retain the pressed out juice. It incidentally shows that the material was hard and the pieces of stalk that were crushed were cut into a size to be accommodated in a mortar. We must accept that a stalk fresh and plucked from plast was chewable but stored and dry was hard and to extract ephedrine, it had to be softened with water and crushed later.
3. Mortar
RV.1.28.6. Mortar, for Indra press thou forth the Soma juice. 1.28.1.Broad based stone is raised to press out, Indra drink the droppings which the mortar sheds. 1.28.3. The woman marks and learns the pestle's constant rise and fall.
1.28.5."In every house 0 Mortar thou art set for work. Here give forth the clearest sound, loud as the drum of conquerors." The material to be crushed was hard and several stalks were crushed. Moreover the term "every house" suggests that Soma was a regular domestic drink, not confined to the priests.
4. Fleece-filter.
9.102.16. Soma upon the ox's skin through the gheep's wool flows purified.
9.69.3. He flows about the sheep-skin. 9.69.4. Onward hath Soma passed through sheep's fair bright fleece. 9.70.7. "Soma assumes his seat in the well fashioned place; the cow-hide and the sheep-skin are his ornaments", or accessories. 9.78.1. The fleece retains his solid parts as though impure and (filtered) bright and cleansed he seeks the special place of the gods. 9.66.11. They have poured upon the fleece towards the meath distilling vat. 9.103.3. On through the long wool of the sheep to the meath dropping vat he flows. 8.2.2 "(Stalks) washed by the men, pressed with stones, strained through the filter made of wool, it (juice) is like a courser bathed in streams." Washing the stalks is their first treatment.
9.12.4. "The straining cloth of wool." Moreover when the quantity to be filtered was large the filter was a sieve of grass. This is mentioned in, 1.161.8. "Drink ye this water, the rinsing of the Munja grass." Griffith comments that, "Soma has been filtered through a strainer made of that grass." This would explain how earlier, Winnowing= Filtration. We can incidentally realize that such a filter would not separate a substance like essential oil. Miss Mulholland has a theory that Soma juice was rich in an essential oil which was fractionated by using animal skin as filter, something technically impossible for nomads. Soma has been filtered over sheep fleece, over a woolen cloth as in 9.12.4 and even over long wool, finally through a sieve made of grass. Sheep fleece is not sheep skin or hide.
5. Self-purification of Soma by sedimentation.
If tea which has not been filtered properly is allowed to remain for some time, the particles that were floating before would swell and settle at the bottom. If Soma juice did contain fine particles there was no way of filtering these out through the filters available at the time. Then it was left to itself and when the plant particles swelled they became heavy and settled at the bottom as sediment. The juice could then be decanted and drunk, RV. 1.45.10.says "Here stands the Soma, bounteous gods, drink- this expressed ere yesterday." Griffith comments that it was: "prepared two days before in order that juice might ferment before it was used." But usually the juice was taken fresh and crushed stalks, as bagasse of the first two pressings, were recrushed in the evening and never left for the next day. The explanation, then, is that it was juice, containing very fine plant particles, that alone was allowed to stand in this way.
As above there is also the verse, 8.35.19. "Accordant of one mind with Surya (Sun-god) and with dawn, drink juice, 0 Asvins,three days old. "This again would be juice with very fine plant paiticles left to allow the particles to settle as sediment.
6. Wooden vessels
The Aryans being pastoral people at the time were always on the move to see their cattle well grazed. Then the utensils they carried could not be fragile. Hence pottery is conspicuous by its absence in the hymns of
Rigveda; the utensils then had to be of leather, wood or metal. Wooden utensils were of three sizes.
1. For receiving pressed juice as, vats.
2. For receiving filtered juice as, buckets.
3. For serving the drink as, beakers.
The former two were large and are treated here as equivalents, the smaller container was quite distinct. 9.23.4. "The living Soma being cleansed, turned to the vat, which drips with meath,9.107.12.With the stalk's juice exhilirating, resting not, into the vat that drops with meath. 10.101.7. Pour forth the well with stone wheel, wooden buckets, the drink of heroes, with the through for armour. 9.8.6. When purified within the jars, bright red and golden hued, hath clothed him with the
robe of milk. 9.72.1. Soma in the jar is mingled with
the milk, he sendeth out his voice 9.60.3. Pavamana hath streamed through the fleece, he runs into the jars. 9.106.12. Into the jars hath he been loosed like an impetuous steed for war. 9.96.22. He hath entered, balmed with milk, the goblet. 9.96.20.Fowing to the pitcher he with roar passed into the beakers. 9.93.2. With milk he hastens to the chosen meeting place, the beaker, 9.85.5. Roaring within the beaker thou art balmed with milk: thou passest through the fleece filter all at once. 4.27.5. Let Maghavan (Indra) accept the beaker, white, filled with the shining liquid. 1.23.3 Three sacred beakers drank the juices. 2.15.1. "In the Trikadrukas he drank the Soma." Kapadia (p.12) translates, Trikadrukas = Three vessels. Griffith however commenting upon RV.2.11.17. on p.272, writes that "upon the great Trikadruka days" as three days of Abbiplava festival. 9.97.33 "Enter the Soma-holding beaker, Indra (the) juice." The final renderings in English as vat, bucket goblet, jar, and beaker found in Griffith's translation should be checked against their Sanskrit originals. This is beyond my powers. The vessels into which Soma was macerated and filtered were larger than the one in which it was served as drink, is all that can be observed here.
Colours of Soma juice
Since Soma was not recognized as ephedra due importance has not been given to the fact that some species have yellow stalks others green. Dr. Unwala (1979) mentions that the "Home. of Iran is slightly yellowish while that of Baluchistan bright green. Perhaps there are two species of Homa, one Homa Zareen and the other Homa Spate." In fact a third species would be the one in China, being the one the Aryans used first. Further he observes" the pith (of the Iranian species) shows a red colouration." The species growing in Baluchistan would show the same. Then considering the different species and the different conditions of the same plant, no one colour can be assigned to the juice. I was however able to confirm that ephedra stalks have an ochre red pith.

Our valuable member S. Mahdihassan has been with us since Sunday, 24 March 2013.

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